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Losing Connections: 5G Wireless Technology And The Potential Risk For Aviation – Technology – Canada

Mish Boyka

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Aircraft incidents and accidents are complex. When one occurs,
it can involve a multitude of factors such as human error,
organizational problems, and/or environmental factors. Recently, a
new risk factor related to technological advancement has formally
been introduced to the aviation industry. This risk factor is 5G
wireless technology.

What is 5G?

5G is an invisible but critical force in our lives these days.
The radio frequency spectrum supports our reliance and dependency
on wireless communications and radio frequencies are key for
business, personal cell phone use, and for autonomous technology
and aviation.

Radio waves travel across the electromagnetic spectrum, and this
spectrum is comprised of frequency bands. The spectrum bands are
similar to a multi-lane highway, but with each lane having its own
unique characteristics. These characteristics specify who can
operate within that lane or spectrum band, and some bands are
licensed. In Canada, the department of Innovation, Science and
Economic Development manages the spectrum and in the United States,
the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in charge of the
spectrum.

5G is the fifth generation of wireless communication, opening up
a new “highway lane” for increased connectivity, response
time and bandwidth. The first generation (1G) was introduced in the
early 1980s and led to wireless telephones that were able to
transmit audio only. Technology advanced through to 4G, increasing
our connectivity over time. The 5G network will set a new pace for
business and communication.

5G communication operates within the 3.7-4.2 GHz frequency band.
A portion of this band, specifically the portion designated as
3.7-3.98 GHz frequency, will be dedicated to 5G (sometimes referred
to as the C-band). Traditionally the C-band does not have high
traffic given its current occupation by low-powered satellite
operation. However, that is changing and the C-band could
eventually get very busy.

With the development and adoption of any new technology,
discerning what is a conspiracy theory from what is a real threat
can take time. Over the past few years (notably in late 2020 and
early 2021), alarm bells from reputable sources are ringing about
how the introduction of 5G could negatively affect the safety of
low-level aviation operations.

Radar altimeters

To understand the issue, we have to first identify the avionics
that raised the alarm bells about aviation safety.

An altimeter is the only instrument within an aircraft that
allows the pilot to know how far above the ground or obstacles they
are. The altimeter measures the distance between the aircraft and
the ground using radio frequencies in the “highway lane”
just above the 4GHz range. An altimeter is a key instrument used
for take-offs, landings and low-altitude flying and can also
provide critical input to other aircraft systems, such as
traffic-alert collision avoidance systems (TCAS). Commercial
aircraft, civil aircraft, military aircraft, helicopters, (and some
UAVs) all have altimeters.

1041382a.jpg

Radar altimeters operate in the 4.2-4.4 GHz space, just above
the C-band intended for 5G.

Inaccurate altimeter readings can result in a significant and
dangerous problem for the pilot, the aircraft, and any
passengers.1

The RTCA report and the risk to aviation

The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) is a
private, not-for-profit association. The RTCA works regularly with
the government for aircraft equipment certification, and in the
development of aviation industry standards for regulatory
compliance.2

On October 8, 2020, the RTCA distributed a 231-page publication
of its study that evaluated how 5G emissions could interfere with
an aircraft’s radar altimeter performance.3 The
publication was in response to the anticipated expansion of the 5G
C-band. To date, the RTCA publication is the most comprehensive
GFN on this topic.

The results of the RTCA’s testing and evaluation, and
contained in its peer-reviewed publication, reveal “a major
risk that 5G telecommunication systems in the 3.7-3.98 GHz band
will cause harmful interference to radar altimeters on all types of
civil aircraft – including commercial transport airplanes;
business, regional, and general aviation airplanes; and both
transport and general aviation
helicopters.”4 The 5G interference could
result in inaccurate altimeter readings, or complete altimeter
failure, resulting in pilots being unaware of their distance from
the ground.

Within the GFN contained in the October 2020 RTCA
publication, an example landing approach at Chicago’s
O’Hare Airport is used. The RTCA adopted a precision approach
to Runway 27L, as this is the “single most utilized runway for
arrivals at O’Hare”.5 The RTCA also
assumed locations of 5G base stations based on the locations of
five existing 4G base stations already within or near the approach
path to Runway 27L. The RTCA then assessed the risk of 5G
interference on an aircraft’s descent to Runway 27L. The RTCA
found that all five base stations produced interference above the
identified safety margin for an approach into O’Hare
Airport.6

In its publication, RTCA did not rule out the possibility of
“catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities, in the
absence of appropriate mitigations” due to the identified risk
of 5G interference to low-level aviation.7

The record-breaking 5G auction

As a result of the October 2020 RTCA report, multiple trade
groups such as Aerospace Industries Association, Air Line Pilots
Association, the National Business Aviation Association, and many
others, requested that the FCC consider mitigation
efforts.8 In early December 2020, the aviation
industry voiced its concern about the FCC’s decision to
reallocate a portion of the 3.7-4.2 GHz frequency band to make the
3.7-3.98 GHz portion available for 5G use. The reallocation to 5G
may introduce interference to radar altimeters operating around the
world in the 4.2-4.4 GHz band. For this reason, the aviation
industry made a request to suspend the FCC’s auction for
spectrum licenses scheduled to begin on December 8, 2020.

In addition, there was a December 1, 2020 request by the Federal
Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation to
pause the FCC’s auction.9

Notwithstanding the testing and report circulated by the RTCA,
or the petitions by the industry, the first phase of the FCC’s
5G Spectrum Auction concluded on January 15, 2021.10

This was the highest-grossing spectrum auction ever in the
United States for the private-sector purchase of spectrum licenses
in the C-band. Gross proceeds for the auction were above US $80.9
billion. The auction results will lead to the improvement of
services to wireless consumers. Some of the auction proceeds will
go to some satellite operators who currently operate within the
C-band, in order to move those operations into another portion of
the spectrum. This raises questions about those whose altimeters
operate near the C-band and could be prone to interference as
outlined in the RTCA study.

The FCC has dismissed the concern raised by the RTCA and
believes that 5G operations within the C-Band will not cause
problematic interference given the 200Mghz buffer between the
C-band compared to the band within which radar altimeters operate.
Further, the FCC has communicated it has concerns about the
RTCA’s comprehensive study, citing overly stringent parameters
adopted by the RTCA in its testing, and that the RTCA did not
itemize its data in terms of altimeter brand or
model.11 However, it is unclear if the FCC has its
own information about what altimeter brand or model it has deemed
is better at preventing 5G interference.

Successfully preventing 5G interference in aviation

The advent of 5G technology will change the way our world
communicates. It will assist driving economic growth, and
represents an advancement that the aviation and aerospace sector
should embrace. Nonetheless, there is only one comprehensive study
so far, and there exists an apparent lack of communication between
the RTCA and the FCC about the identified risk to aviation
safety.

Therefore, how global aviation and telecommunication
advancements will proceed in parallel is uncertain. The
advancements could mean changes to 5G operations, or perhaps it
could mean changes to altimeter designs, in an effort to reduce or
eliminate any interference. Honeywell, a leader in radar
altimeters, is apparently testing in this
space.12 However, designing and replacing
altimeters in all aircrafts that are potentially impacted by 5G may
not be feasible, and it is not clear if the aviation industry alone
as it stands could bear such a cost.

In France, the concern over the 5G risk resulted in a slowdown
of 5G deployment as the issue is further assessed by the DGAC (the
French-equivalent to Transport Canada or the FAA). In the case of
the DGAC, measures may be added to create zoning protection around
airports to adapt to the introduction of 5G “as with each
technological evolution” that occurs.13 The
approach in France could also lend itself to procedures changing in
how one uses avionics. Alternatively, this approach could impact
when and how 5G is utilized around certain airports. On February 3,
2021, the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority issued Safety
Alert 2021-03 to address “major operational risks” that
5G technology could have on the operation of radio altimeters and
wireless avionics intra-communications Radio.14

In Canada, discussions are occurring between Transport Canada
(TCCA) and the Innovation, Science and Economic Development branch
of the government about the liability concerns raised with 5G
implementation. TTCA’s proposed approach is safety-focused, in
that frequency band selection should not be influenced by economic
reasons or harmonization with what the United States is
doing.15

Conclusion

The long-term impact of 5G on aviation is still unknown. Yet,
within the nascent stages of this identified risk, potential
lessons are available and within reach.

Wireless telecommunication and the aviation industry are both in
existence with the end-goal of bringing people together and,
therefore, a lack of connection between these two giant industries
on the 5G issue is the antithesis of what each represents. A
significant risk has been identified that could influence altimeter
usage. However, currently only one comprehensive study by the RTCA
exists, which was distributed in October of 2020.

Alongside this development, economic factors are driving
wireless decisions on a necessary fast track. A lack of
understanding and discussion in the early stages of two industries
colliding (aviation and wireless communication) could lead to
catastrophic failures. Alternatively, turning back to the roots of
connectivity and engaging in open and compromising dialogue could
also lead to technical ingenuity. The second path, although more
challenging at this stage, may be the best option to ensure
continued economic growth alongside the preservation of aviation
safety.

Footnotes

1 One example of an incorrect altimeter reading leading
to catastrophic losses is the tragic accident of the Boeing 736-800 Turkish Airlines
flight 1951
 on February 25, 2009 near Schiphol Airport,
Amsterdam.

2 Radio Technical Commission for
Aeronautics

3 Assessment of C-Band Mobile Telecommunications
Interference Impact on Low Range Radar Altimeter
Operations. RTCA October 2020 Report

4 Ibid.

5 RTCA October 2020 Report, page 44, section
8.1.2.

6 RTCA October 2020 Report, page 77, section
10.2.1.

7 RTCA October 2020 Report, page 88, section
11.2.

8 Federal Communications Commission filing:
ID1207131706609

9 As 5G auction continues, Pentagon turns to safety
planning

10 First phase record breaking 5G spectrum auction
concludes.

11 The military is scrambling to understand the
aviation crash risk from a new 5G sale

12 Honeywell to test private 5G
network

13 Sécurité : la DGAC retarde le
déploiement de la 5G dans les
aéroports

14 Safety Alert 2021-03 – Requirements to mitigate 5G
interference operational risks

15 Consultation on the technical and policy framework
for the 3650-4200 MHz band and changes to the frequency allocation
of the 3500-3650 MHz band

About BLG

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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Vermont Health Connect had 10 data breaches last winter

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Vermont Health Connect had 10 data breaches last winter
Vermont Health Connect has set up a special enrollment period in response to the coronavirus outbreak. VHC photo

In mid-December, a Vermont Health Connect user was logging in when the names of two strangers popped up in the newly created account.

The individual, who was trying to sign up for health insurance, deleted the information that had suddenly appeared.

“It was super unsettling to think that someone is filing in my account with my information,” the person, whose name is redacted in records, wrote in a complaint to the Department of Vermont Health Access. “Just seems like the whole thing needs a big overhaul.”

It was one of 10 instances between November and February when Vermont Health Connect users reported logging to find someone else’s information on their account.

The data breaches included names of other applicants and, in some cases, their children’s names, birth dates, citizenship information, annual income, health care plans, and once, the last four digits of a Social Security number, according to nearly 900 pages of public records obtained by VTDigger. On Dec. 22, the department’s staff shut down the site to try to diagnose the problem.

While officials say the glitches have been resolved, it’s the most recent mishap for a system that has historically been plagued by security and technical issues. The breaches could be even more widespread: Administrators of Vermont Health Connect can’t tell if other, similar breaches went unreported.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” said Jon Rajewski, a managing director at the cybersecurity response company Stroz Friedberg. Regardless of whether there are legal ramifications for the incidents, they should be taken “very seriously,” he said.

“If my data was being stored on a website that was personal, — maybe it contains names or my Social Security number, like my status of insurance… — I would expect that website to secure it and keep it safe,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want someone else to access my personal information.”

Andrea De La Bruere, executive director of the Agency of Human Services, called the data breaches “unfortunate.” But she downplayed the severity of the issues. Between November and December, 75,000 people visited the Vermont Health Connect website for a total of 330,000 page views, she said. The 10 incidents? “It’s a very uncommon thing to have happen,” she said.

De La Bruere said the issue was fixed on Feb. 17, and users had reported no similar problems since. The information that was shared was not protected health information, she added, and the breaches didn’t violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

“No matter what the law says technically, whether it’s HIPAA-related or just one’s personal information, it’s really concerning,” said Health Care Advocate Mike Fisher.

The timing of the issue is less than ideal, he added. Thousands of Vermonters will be logging into Vermont Health Connect in the coming weeks to take advantage of discounts granted by the American Rescue Plan. “It’s super important that people can access the system, and that it’s safe and secure,” Fisher said.

A ‘major issue

The issues first arose on Nov, 12, when at least two Vermonters logged in and found information about another user, according to records obtained by VTDigger.

Department of Vermont Health Access workers flagged it as a “major issue” for their boss, Kristine Fortier, a business application support specialist for the department.

Similar incidents also occurred on Nov. 17 and 18, and later on multiple days in December.

Department of Vermont Health Access staff members appeared alarmed at the issues, and IT staff escalated the tickets to “URGENT.”

“YIKES,” wrote a staff member Brittney Richardson. While the people affected were notified, the data breaches were never made public.

State workers pressed OptumInsights, a national health care tech company that hosts and manages Vermont Health Connect, for answers. The state has contracted with the company since 2014. It has paid about $11 million a year for the past four years for maintenance and operations, with more added in “discretionary funds.”

Optum appeared unable to figure out the glitch. “It is hard to find root cause of issue,” wrote Yogi Singh, service delivery manager for Optum on Dec. 10. Optum representatives referred comments on the issues to the state.

By Dec. 14, Grant Steffens, IT manager for the department, raised the alarm. “I’m concerned on the growing number of these reports,” he wrote in an email to Optum.

The company halted the creation of new accounts on Dec, 14, and shut down the site entirely on Dec, 22 to install a temporary fix. “It’s a very complex interplay of many many pieces of software on the back end,” said Darin Prail, agency director of digital services. The complexity made it challenging to identify the problem, and to fix it without introducing any new issues, he said.

In spite of the fixes, a caller reported a similar incident on Jan. 13.

On Feb. 8, a mother logged in to find that she could see her daughter’s information. When she logged into her daughter’s account, the insurance information had been replaced by her own.

“Very weird,” the mother wrote in an emailed complaint.

Optum completed a permanent fix on Feb. 17, according to Prail. Vermont Health Connect has not had a problem since, he said.

Prail said the state had reported the issues to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services as required, and had undergone a regular audit in February that had no findings. The state “persistently pressured Optum to determine the root cause and correct the issue expeditiously but at the same time, cautiously, so as to not introduce additional issues/problems,” he wrote in an email to VTDigger.

“We take reported issues like this very seriously,” he said.

A history of glitches

The state’s health exchange has been replete with problems, including significant security issues and privacy violations, since it was built in 2012 at a cost of $200 million.

The state fired its first contractor, CGI Technology Systems, in 2014. A subcontractor, Exeter, went out of business in 2015. Optum took over for CGI, and continued to provide maintenance and tech support for the system.

Don Turner
Don Turner, right, then the House minority leader, speaks in 2016 about the need to fix the state’s glitch-ridden Vermont Health Connect website. With him are Phil Scott, left, then the lieutenant governor, and Sen. Joe Benning. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

In 2018, when Vermont Health Connect was less than 6 years old, a report dubbed the exchange outdated and “obsolete.”

Officials reported similar privacy breaches in 2013, when Vermonters saw other people’s information.

An auditor’s report in 2016 found a slew of cybersecurity flaws, and officials raised concerns again during a  2018 email breach.

It wasn’t the first time that Vermont Health Connect users had been able to view other people’s personal information. Three times since October 2019, individuals had logged in to see another individual’s insurance documents. Prail attributed those incidents to human error, not to system glitch; a staff member uploaded documents to the wrong site, he said.

In spite of the issues, Prail said he and other state officials have been happy with Optum. After years of technical challenges with Vermont Health Connect, “Optum has really picked up the ball and improved it and been running it pretty well,” he said.

Glitches are inevitable, he added, and Optum has addressed them quickly. “They took a really difficult-to-manage site and made it work pretty well,” he said. “Optum is generally quite responsive to any issues we have.”

“I find any privacy breach to be concerning,” said Scott Carbee, chief information security officer for the state. He noted that the state uses “hundreds of software systems.” “While the scope of the breaches can be mitigated, true prevention is a difficult task,” he wrote in an email to VTDigger.

Optum spokesperson Gwen Moore Holliday referred comments to the state, but said the company was “honored” to work with Vermont Health Connect “to support the health care needs of Vermont residents.”

Prail said the Agency of Human Services had no plans to halt its contract with the company. “I don’t have a complaint about Optum,” he said. “They took a really difficult-to-manage site and made it work pretty well.”

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Filed under:

Health Care

Tags: data breaches, Optum, Vermont Health Connect

Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.